What’s the Big Idea?

Where do you get your ideas? When I have presented my children’s books at schools and libraries, that’s the one question that has always come up. The answer is, of course, that every book is different.

I got the idea for Mommy’s Lap, a picture book about the birth of a new baby, when my daughter was five months old. As I pushed her stroller around the neighborhood, I started thinking about the best time to have another baby, and how my daughter would react when she had to share her parents with a sibling.

Bat Time pretty closely describes the summer bedtime ritual my husband established with our daughter when she was four.

Crab Moon was inspired by a series of emails I received from my aunt, who has a beach house on Long Island, where she watches the annual spectacle of horseshoe crab gathering at high tide to spawn.

Breakout at the Bug Lab grew out of a profile I wrote for Seven Days about a local entomologist and her giant hissing Madagascar cockroaches pets. In the course of our interview I gathered more material than could fit in one story. Bug Lab plays off some of those unused anecdotes.

After Bug Lab was published, I got my own roaches – a male and a female – to embellish my author visits. Eventually the stage roaches reproduced. When I tried to find homes for the roach offspring, Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was born.

Inspiration for Little Grandma’s Mirror, the novel for adults now in the hands of my agent, was both more simple and more complicated. The simple inspiration was my mother’s death. The only way I could deal with my loss was to write.

What to write was more complicated. Several approaches vied for my attention: the literal details of what actually happened; a freer interpretation of how it felt and what it meant; the realistic, contemporary fiction that grew from the other two; and the fantastic tale of an imaginary shtetl that mirrored the themes I was getting at with the other approaches, the way a dream reflects and refracts the residue of waking reality. Did I mention that each approach demanded a different voice?

I guess I could have just picked one path. Or I could have written several separate stories. But as strong as my need to get this stuff down was the sense that it all belonged together. The question that consumed me for nearly a decade was how. The answer to that question is the essence of the finished work.

And here I sit, casting about for my next project, and I find myself asking myself, Where do ideas come from? Of course I know the answer. They come from our lives and from other people’s stories. They come from our obsessions and from the dreamy associations the mind manufactures when we’re thinking about something else. And they  come from the words that find their way onto the page without any particular plan. That’s how it has worked for me, anyway. The trick now is to remember that, and to trust that in one way or another, it will happen again.

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2 Responses to “What’s the Big Idea?”

  1. Emily Weaver Says:

    I want to read “Little Grandma’s Mirror”…it sounds very interesting!

    My ideas come at the strangest times, and in the strangest places…a busy hotel lobby, a quiet path through the woods, a coffee shop, a moment when my heart is so sad or so happy it will burst..you just never know. But I find, for me anyway, my own hopes or dreams or experiences always find a little foothold in every story I write, it’s what makes them real.

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Yup. No matter where the spark originates, if something I care about strongly doesn’t find its way in, the story doesn’t take off.

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